Where Nations Are Neighbors

Picture a tall, slim African woman with a child strapped to her back with strips of brightly colored fabric. She has two other small children who are dragging behind them baskets of clothes to be laundered.  The mother stops to adjust her headdress and catches the eye of an onlooker. She flashes a beautiful white smile and then continues on with her daily chore. 

This was the scene I witnessed my first summer working with refugees in 2013, but it was not in some remote African Village. It was in East Charlotte at an apartment complex off of Central Avenue. 

When explaining my job to people, I often get asked if I speak the same language as my students. It is a reasonable question to address to an ESL teacher, until I explain that I work with a small class of adults from nine different countries on four different continents. 

This usually snaps people to attention, and they ask, “Well, how on earth do you do that?” 

 “I do it with a lot of patience and a lot of visuals,” I smile. 

The language barrier is most complicated when I need to reach my class by phone. Since I work with our beginner students, many of whom struggle to read and write in their own languages, I cannot send out a group text message or email blast of information for reply.  On a good day, there may be someone in the home or a neighbor next door who can translate for me, but many times it is just me taking deep breaths and maintaining a sense of humor while I try to communicate. 

I had not spoken to my students since March when Covid-19 abruptly shut down our English program, except for a hand full of letters I wrote and mailed to them each week until August. I was excited at the prospect of speaking to them to let them know we are going to try and open our classroom doors again at half capacity in November. It felt more like phoning friends and family than a group of pupils. 

With each limited conversation, I was able to gather a bit on how they have been over the last seven months. I learned that my student from Ethiopia was expecting her third child next month. She is having another little girl to match her other daughter who looks like an African version of Cindy Lou Who from Whoville.  At three years old, she has big doe-like eyes, and Kewpie doll curls above each ear. 

After I announced who I was on the phone to my student from Central America she exclaimed, “Oh Teacher! It is so nice to meet you!” This is an expression in Spanish that is perfectly acceptable as a warm greeting, but it does not translate well in English. I knew exactly what she meant so I replied, “It is so nice to meet you too!”

Some things do not need to be corrected, because the message underneath is clear and needs no translation when shared between neighbors.

Dry Bones


“Then he asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones become living people again?” 

“O Sovereign Lord,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.” 

Ezekiel 37:3 

In the fall of 2014, I went with my daughters to hear Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi speak at a church in Steele Creek. As excited as I was to hear “The Queen of Katwe,” a chess prodigy from the slums of Uganda, I was more excited to meet her teacher, Robert. I had been teaching ESL to adult refugees for two years, the latter spend at Project 658 building a program from scratch. 

After their time of sharing, I found Robert and asked him to sign my book. He casually asked me what I did for a living. When I told him that I taught English to adult refuges from all over the world, he stopped writing. He got a serious look on his face, closed my book in mid signature, and tucked it under his arm. He then reached to clasp my hand in both of his and shook it.

He said, “Thank you for teaching adults how to read and write. I was a refugee and, in my city, we do not help the adults much. We focus on the children. Our goal is to reach them young. Thank you for being someone who wants to help the ones who are old. It’s so hard to do.” 

He finished singing my Queen of Katwe book, and I went to find my children. 

I thought about this story this week as I set out to call my students to let them know we are trying to resume our English classes at half capacity in November. Communication by phone is one of the more complicated elements of my job since I teach our beginner class, many of whom have never been in a formal educational setting. If it is a good day, there might be someone nearby or a neighbor next door who can translate for me. 

I called the home of two of my Syrian students who live under one roof with the rest of their large family. One is an older woman in her mid-sixties who has never learned to read or write, and whose husband I learned during my short conversation with the daughter in law, had passed away this summer.  The phone was later handed to a 12-year-old, who helped translate the information I needed in order to plan for our class to relaunch. 

She let me know that her mother would be unable to return until she and her four brothers and sisters were no longer doing school from home due to the Covid-19 virus. 

“Will you please ask your grandmother if she is ready to come back?” I asked. 

The young girl paused and then spoke several sentences in Arabic. 

“Oh yes, my grandmother is very ready to come back now,” she said.  

There was laughter in the background, and then her grandmother took the phone. 

“Oh, thank you teacher. I am happy,” she said to me. 

Take Your Turn

Baseball was my first love. The smell of fresh cut grass still reminds me of my first tee ball practice when I was five years old. It was behind Pinewood Elementary, barely big enough to hold up a glove, that I discovered I did not need to be taught how to hit and catch. The abilities were already inside of me. 

I excelled at most team sports I played except for when the clock was suspended, and all eyes were on me. I would collapse if I had to shoot a free throw or take a penalty kick.  I remembered this about myself twenty-five years later as I looked out across the field at my boss and 11 co-workers who were waiting for me to bat. 

It was a blistering day for our Project 658 spring retreat and with a decisive RBI from the batter in front of me, our team had just won the staff whiffle ball game. There was no reason for me to step up to the plate. A fact that I repeated to everyone’s needling of me to climb in the batter’s box.  

“I doesn’t matter,” I said sheepishly gathering up the equipment. “The game is over, and I don’t mind.” 

“That’s ridiculous,” my friend said to me while everyone waited in the hot sun. 

“Seriously,” I responded, now getting a little embarrassed by their focused attention and goading. “It’s ok. I’d rather not.” 

I knew people were ready to stop and spend our last few hours playing in the lake. 

“Carrie,” my friend said pointedly and handed me a ball, “It’s ok. Take your turn.” 

With her invitation, I went to pick up a bat. Instead of reaching for the one I had used all afternoon that looked more like a caveman’s club with its large, pink oversized head, I grabbed the slim, black one.  Better known as the bat for adults and not children. 

I threw the ball to the pitcher and took a few practice swings. I told myself not to try too hard. I breathed in deep and let my breath out slowly. 

It doesn’t matter Carrie,” I thought, trying to convince myself. “This means nothing.”

The game rules were standard minus the variation of what constituted a home run. If you hit the ball in the air and over the far sidewalk without someone catching it, then you could round the bases basking in your moment of glory. 

The humorous heckling began before my boss’s first pitch. He threw the ball, and I tipped it over my head. More hilarious jeering rang out from the infield, and I laughed. I got so tickled that I bent over giggling and felt deep joy.  

Eric threw a second one, and I went after it with all that I had. I connected with the whiffle ball, and it took off into the air like a shot. Before I knew it, it had soared way over the heads of the outfielders and well beyond the home run sidewalk. 

I didn’t have to be encouraged this time as I started running towards first base for my game ending, home run loop. After many high fives, I went to find the ball as a reminder. I walked up to my friend and thanked her. 

“For what?” she asked.

“For encouraging me from this moment forward to always take my turn,” I smiled. 

He Moved Into the Neighborhood

“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” John1:14 The Message

October 17, 2017

I have worked with Logan for three years. He is quiet and reserved unless delivering one of his funny quips around the table at lunch or in a meeting. Before last week, I am not even sure I could have adequately told you what he does at Project 658 other than he is always willing and available to help a fellow staff member in need. He also oversees the processing and distribution of our branded roast, ​Restored Coffee​.

Last Wednesday Logan shuffled into the office around 9:00am. He was sleepy eyed and had been recently roused by a little, African American toddler. They walked into the office holding hands.

This was nothing new as we have all seen Logan and Katrina together quite bit at work in the last few weeks. What was startling this particular morning was that they were twinning. They were dressed exactly alike from their denim jackets and blue jeans to their matching off-white Saucony sneakers.

Logan walked over to our snack cabinet, grabbed a piece of dark chocolate, unwrapped it, and handed it to Katrina. Her face beamed at the breakfast and at him. Then they locked hands again and walked out of the office into the cafe.

My friend Sarah and I turned back to our work, but I could not resist finally asking the question that I had been too busy to ask.

“Sarah,” I said “Who is she?”

“She’s Pepe’s little sister,” she responded, as if that settled it.

I knew of Pepe. He was the one I had seen asleep in Jessie’s lap around the Project 658 lunch table for the last couple of years. But I did not know him. I did not know his story or his sister’s.

“Why is Katrina with Logan all the time right now?” I asked.

Sarah answered, “Their mom is in the hospital. She was diagnosed with cancer and begins chemo this week. Pepe is staying with the boys, and Katrina is having a sleepover with the girls.”

When she spoke of the “boys” and the “girls,” I knew she was referring to Logan, Zach, Mariotti, Jessie, and Morgan who work for Project 658 and The Urban Eagles. These five millennials are friends and live intentionally in Sailboat Bay, an apartment complex off Albemarle Rd. that houses low income residents, refugees, and at risk international families.

What I did not know, but am slowly learning, is just how much this young quintet is giving of themselves in order to care for their neighbors without really telling anyone about it.

Wanting to know more, I sat down with Logan to get the full story.

He moved into the neighborhood with Zach 3 years ago. That is where he met Tibe, a single mom from Eritrea. Her husband was not kind and was often out of the house. Logan would see Pepe riding around the apartment complex on a two wheeler by himself when the he was only 2 1⁄2 years old. At that point the girls were already heavily invested in Tibe’s life helping to care for him and his 3 older siblings while she had to work. Katrina is the youngest of her family.

Over the years, they have driven the children and their friends back and forth to soccer practice. They have advocated with maintenance for repairs in Tibe’s apartment including getting a leaky, rotten wax ring on the toilet fixed that had been corroded and neglected for months.

They have tutored children in their schoolwork, spent time doing bible studies with the teenagers, invited the kids over for movie nights, and watched over the little ones in such a way that made everyone feel safe, loved, and wanted.

A cancer diagnosis for any family is hard and disorienting, but for a single mom who does not speak English or drive it can feel impossible.

But not for Tibe, because she is not alone.

She has 5 neighbors who have driven her to all of her doctor’s appointments. She has 5 friends that have supported her children while they translate this new world of medical terminology, treatments, and surgeries, because her language is so remote that only her kids speak it. She has 5 caregivers that are so much more like family that she can have a one week hospital stay for chemotherapy and not worry about where her children are sleeping at night.

All because they moved into the neighborhood.